APPEAL FROM THE CRAWFORD COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT. NO. 17DR-04-603. HONORABLE MICHAEL MEDLOCK, JUDGE.
Booth Law Firm, P.L.C., by: Frank W. Booth, for appellants.
The Baker Law Firm, by: Rinda Baker, for appellee.
LARRY D. VAUGHT, Judge. GLADWIN, C.J., and WALMSLEY, J., agree.
LARRY D. VAUGHT, Judge
Appellants Christa Gregory Lowder and Robert Edward Lowder appeal from an order awarding custody of their biological children to Christa's former husband, appellee David Gregory. Appellants raise numerous assignments of error, none of which warrant reversal. We therefore affirm the custody order.
Christa and David " Creed" Gregory were married in 1997, and two children were born during their marriage: a son,
C1 in 2001, and a daughter, C2 in 2002. While married to Creed, Christa engaged in a long-term affair with appellant Robert Edward " Eddie" Lowder. In July 2004, she and Eddie underwent DNA testing, which revealed him to be the biological father of C1 and C2.
In October 2004, Christa sued Creed for divorce in the Crawford County Circuit Court. Her complaint recited that she and Creed were residents of Crawford County and that there were " two children born of the marriage." She prayed for custody of the children, subject to Creed's visitation, and asked for child support. No mention was made of Eddie's being the children's biological father.
The circuit court entered a divorce decree on January 12, 2005, and awarded Christa custody of the " two children born of this marriage." Creed received standard visitation and was ordered to pay child support of $150 per month, plus all of the children's non-covered medical and dental expenses. Soon after the divorce, Christa married Eddie, and they moved with the children to Oklahoma.
In July 2005, Creed asked the court to place the children in his custody due to Christa and Eddie's interfering with his visitation and making derogatory remarks about him in the children's presence. In response, Eddie filed a motion to intervene, citing his status as the children's biological father. Both he and Christa asked the court to alter that portion of the divorce decree recognizing Creed as the children's father and to declare Eddie's paternity. Creed responded that he was the children's legal father and that Christa had misled both him and the court regarding the children's paternity.
On June 13, 2006, the court entered an order that allowed Eddie to intervene and established his paternity of C1 and C2. The order also vacated the divorce decree's finding that the children were born of Christa and Creed's marriage. Despite these rulings, the court found Creed to be a person standing in loco parentis to the children and continued his visitation and his child-support obligation.
Following the June 2006 order, the children lived with Christa and Eddie in Oklahoma and visited Creed in Arkansas. The parties continued to file motions for modification of visitation and custody, but there was little change in those arrangements until August 2011, when Creed filed a motion for custody of C1 and C2. The motion cited a material change of circumstances in that the children were living in " deplorable" conditions at Christa and Eddie's home and were subject to " physical abuse" while living there. The court heard the motion on July 2, 2012.
At the hearing, Creed testified that Eddie was verbally abusive to the children and had hit C1 on the back hard enough to leave a mark. He also said that the children had come to his home covered with flea or chigger bites and that Eddie had cursed at him and threatened him in front of the children. Creed's mother testified that Creed had taken good care of the children and that they were happy in his care. She said that she lived near Creed and kept the children overnight if Creed had to work, and that she would continue to do so if Creed obtained custody.
The children, ages eleven and nine, testified in a closed session, and their testimony was later sealed. They stated unequivocally that they would prefer to live with
Creed rather than Christa and Eddie. C1 offered photographic evidence depicting Christa and Eddie's house as extremely cluttered, so much so that there was little space for walking around. He also produced a photograph of a large red mark on his back where Eddie had hit him. He said that he was afraid of Eddie and that Eddie hit him " a bunch." He also said that Eddie called him " nasty" names and threatened him if he failed to testify that he wanted to live with Christa and Eddie. C1 further stated that there was not enough food or milk at Christa and Eddie's house and that Christa, who stayed at home during the day, had no vehicle or phone while Eddie was at work.
C2 likewise testified that Christa and Eddie's house was very messy and lacking in food and milk. She said that Eddie hit them and used bad language and that he told her how she should testify at the hearing. She stated that she got sick and nervous upon returning to Christa and Eddie's house after visiting Creed and that she liked being with Creed.
Christa testified that her house was clean, that she had sufficient groceries, and that she had never heard Eddie curse or yell at the children but only spank them once or twice. She explained the clutter in her house by saying that Creed ordered the children to be messy and disrespectful and threatened to kill their pets if they did not comply. She also said that she could borrow a neighbor's car if needed, which was confirmed by neighbor Joann Thode. Ms. Thode testified that she had never seen Eddie be extremely harsh with the children, nor had she ever seen the Lowder home in a " filthy" condition.
Eddie did not appear at the hearing because he had not been served with Creed's motion to change custody. He was ...